Although the Virgin Azuma trains aren't due to go into service until late on in 2018 it's still possible to ride on the same type of train today. Azuma is Virgin's brandname for their class 800 family trains. GWR uses the less imaginative Intercity Express Train (IET) as the brand name (as they were developed from the government led Intercity Express Project) but nearly everything about the trains will be the same.
The main difference is that VTEC managed to persuade the government that they can fit a buffet counter into their trains, whereas the intention of the Intercity Express Project was to run trains with at seat service only (mostly delivered via a trolley). Prior to VTEC winning the East Coast franchise it was intended that these trains wouldn't have a buffet either.
It's expected everything else will be the same on both the East Coast and Great Western fleets. The seats including the number of seats in a carriage have been specified by the government. The seats on the VTEC Azumas will be more colourful (you better like red) but they'll be the same seat. GWR are using the government specified seat colours.
The trains will come in 9 car and 5 car variants. The 5 cars will be usually doubled up, but it's also possible to split them en-route allowing some more operational flexibility. Currently the GWR sets in service are running as two 5 car sets joined together. The sets delivered to GWR will be all bi-mode meaning they can run on either electric or diesel. VTEC will be getting some all electric models (class 801) which will replace the IC225 (class 91+mk4) fleet in addition to the bi-mode ones which will replace the diesel HSTs and also open up some new routes.
So as the trains are going to be pretty much idential except for the Foodbar, it's now a good time to try the GWR IETs out if you want to see what's in store with the Azuma. It's a good idea to check with @GWRHelp on Twitter to ensure that an IET service is running on the day you intend to travel.
The current schedule (Mon-Fri) is as follows and the number of services will increase as the fleet is brought gradually into service:
07:00 Paddington to Bristol TM
09:30 Bristol TM to Paddington
11:45 Paddington to Swansea
15:24 (15:29) Swansea to Paddington
19:00 Paddington to Bristol TM
06:00 Bristol TM to Paddington
08:15 Paddington to Cardiff
10:55 Cardiff to Paddington
13:45 Paddington to Swansea
17:24 (17:29) Swansea to Paddington
I jumped on the 19:00 from Paddington but only for a short while, I didn't have time to do the whole run to Bristol.
Sat in first class I was happy with the space available. The seats were firm but comfortable. There was a mix of the different seating types (individual, pairs and table of four) all with plenty of space to work. There's a sizable kitchen on-board so there's certainly the space available for VTEC to continue their first class complimentary offering and GWR are planning to still offer their Pullman restaurant service on services that currently have it (none of the services running at the moment are Pullman services).
I sat briefly in a standard class seat. I thought they were a little too firm for my preference but there was definitely more space. Even if you don't get a table seat the space between seats and the tray table should give you enough space to work on your laptop. Next time I'm travelling on one of these trains I'll sit longer in standard so I can get an informed opinion.
Overall these trains are ideal for those who want to work on the train, as well as more space there's also a socket for everyone rather than having a single socket for two seats. Also as the socket is part of your seat rather than the wall it means if you're in the aisle seat you don't have to stretch over your neighbour to use the socket.
Catering: this is something that will vary significantly between the two operators so you can't assume GWR and VTEC will operate in a similar way. As mentioned earlier GWR can't have a buffet counter on their trains due to the way the government specced them. This is a shame as I personally perfer going to the counter rather than waiting for a trolley (as VTEC are supposed to offer both a buffet and trolley on their trains I know some people have the reverse preference and are annoyed when VTEC doesn't run a trolley) but if they maintain the current staffing levels GWR should be able to run a reasonable on-demand service in both classes. I was quickly served in first class and standard class has their own trolley service. As these particular trains operate as 2x5 car sets it means that there's 3.5 standard class carriages for each trolley to serve and so there shouldn't be too long of a wait.
I don't think hot food was available for purchase, there was no mention of it, but I believe it's part of the plan once they've got the trains up and running for a while. On a longer trip I'd be happy with the opportunity to purchase hot food.
If you're used to VTEC remember that the complimentary offering is different. The main one is alcohol is charged for and I'm guessing hot food when available will be chargeable too.
Ride quality was decent, I didn't notice when the train switched from electric to diesel which is a good thing. WiFi seemed to be still slow, but that's likely more to do with mobile networks along the route.
What will I miss?
GWR have the nicest first class seats around on their HSTs, it's a shame they're going to have to go. The current GWR seats help with the ambiance of the Pullman dining service. It really does feel like a high quality dining experience that can rival many restaurants. The new trains have a lighter more modern interior and although the food will hopefully be the same quality (and if it is I'll still use it when I have the chance) it might not have the same restaurant feeling. It could feel more like a canteen in that regard. Let's see though. There may be lighting settings in the carriages that create a better ambience which would help
I will miss the buffets but if they introduce at seat hot food and aim to have the same selection as is currently on-board then I might learn to not worry about it so much. I think the idea VTEC have of having an app to order hot food at seat is a good one, of course for those without a smartphone you'll need someone to take orders.
Overall they're an improvement. When Virgin introduced the Voyager trains and even the Pendolinos I wasn't particularly impressed. The IETs aren't perfect. There's may elements of design by committee due to government micromanagement but in the areas that matter to most (space, more seats, ability to work) they are an improvement. I need to spend a bit of time in standard class before I can say that comfort is an improvement there, but I'm happy with the comfort in first class. Remember though not everyone is the same, so make up your own mind about the seats. Let's see if they can keep the special atmospehere on the Pullman services.
If GWR manage to pull off a decent trolley service that offers the current range (including the hot food) that the existing buffet offers I might even be persuaded that not having a buffet is fine all along.